How to Improve Kids’ Chinese?

by Woo Yen Yen

It was a joy and delight chatting online with creative folks from different disciplines at the “Speak Mandarin, Spark Creativity” Symposium organized by Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign on Wednesday, December 9th. The objective of the panel was to spotlight folks in the creative industry who use Mandarin in their work, and perhaps inspire others. The issue that hovered over everything, however, was “how can we improve the standard of Chinese amongst kids in Singapore?” In this post, I will highlight one very major misunderstanding about what the problem is, and how we can actually improve kids’ Chinese abilities by clarifying this misunderstanding and shifting our focus. The Speakers My fellow panelists included Neo Hai Bin, founding member of Nine Years Theatre; popular Mandarin singer Ben HumWang Shijia, founder and creator of Ang Ku Kueh Girl and Friends; and 劉冠吟 Liúguānyín, founder and writer of popular Taiwan lifestyle magazine, 小日子 One Day. Our dulcet-toned moderator was Lee Ee Wurn, the Programmes Director at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. The video of our discussion can be found right here, where you’ll get to hear different versions of Mandarin being spoken!

How Do You Solve the Problem of Young People Having a Limited Chinese Vocabulary?

A viewer posed this question: 现代的年轻人” (“young people nowadays”) have very limited Chinese vocabulary, how do you solve that problem? The panel didn’t have time to answer it directly, though it was always there in the background as it’s a perennial lament in all language learning circles, not just Chinese ones. I’m going to address the question directly here. Whenever I hear any statements about “young people nowadays”, I pause and always ask: (1)  Is it really true that “young people nowadays” have a problem? (2) Is “that” a real problem or is it actually a reflection of the uncertainties that “old people nowadays” feel? (3) When we frame the problem in this way, are we missing a better solution? (1) and (2) can be answered together by looking at the various moral panics that have inevitably accompanied significant shifts in technology or culture—whether it is rock and roll music, the way Elvis danced, the depravity of men with long hair, role-playing games, computer games, TV killing literacy, video killing radio, streaming killing video, cargo pants, social media, the Earth revolving around the Sun, etc, etc. Every single time something pops up that disrupts the status quo or alters the balance of power, you can bet some people will start wringing their hands over “young people nowadays”. Declining literacy and/or linguistic shifts are perennial targets. I remember when people bemoaned the death of spelling with the advent of texting, and even today, you can hear people harrumphing over how keyboards have led to the demise of cursive handwriting. Anguish over the state of kids’ Chinese vocabulary is very much in keeping with this tendency. It is nevertheless true, however, that vocabularies and literacy levels are slipping. But it’s not a problem unique to Singapore, nor is it a problem unique to Chinese, nor is it a problem unique to “young people nowadays”. All over the world, kids AND adults are simply reading books less and less because of the time we spend on our devices. I personally witnessed this over my years as a university professor in America. It got progressively harder to get my students to read whole articles, let alone books, never mind perform in-depth textual analysis. But this was happening not just to “young people nowadays”—it was, and is, happening to adults too. But you’ll rarely hear anyone lamenting that “adults nowadays” just don’t have enough vocabulary.  Instead, the solution that is often suggested to solve the problem of “young people nowadays having less vocabulary in Chinese” is simply to add more vocabulary to the curriculum—vocabulary that kids are expected to memorize, of course.  This also does little to make Chinese more appealing against the tsunami of much more engaging content on our devices. In fact, forcing kids to cram even more is likely to turn them off the language.    How not to improve kids' Chinese

Finding a purpose for learning Chinese

It’s not that kids are against learning languages.  There are many kids and adults in Singapore who are now enthusiastically learning Korean… and many of them are doing it by themselves, without enrolling in classes or finding tutors.  Why? Simply because they have a purpose for learning! And it’s a cultural purpose: to sing with friends, to understand K-drama and K-pop songs, to write letters to their dreamboat actors and actresses… They are participating in a hot cultural conversation!    How We Might Get Kids Interested in Chinese

How to improve kids’ Chinese?

The role of parents and teachers is NOT to simply add more vocabulary to the curriculum. It is to facilitate the finding of some purpose that gets kids to participate in a cultural conversation.  On a smaller scale, such incentives might look like learning Chinese jokes to tell, or singing Mandopop songs, making their own manhua 漫画 comics or even shopping on Taobao using Chinese. On another level, purposes might include finding romance, job-hunting, giving a talk, creating a work, or selling a product.  If we tell kids that they have to learn Chinese just because Chinese is beautiful or that you need Chinese to pass a test, you might get some short term results. But these purposes are not very relevant to kids’ lives and they will not lead to sustained learning. However goals such as impressing friends with dumb jokes or introducing Singaporean stuff to friends from China have more personal relevance.   It is for this reason that all of the speakers at the Speak Mandarin, Spark Creativity event talked about the importance of popular culture in their lives. Popular culture is how we participate in cultural conversations!  Framing the problem as “not enough vocabulary” naturally suggests the answer is to add more vocabulary—a reductive solution that itself creates more problems.  If, however, we frame the problem as a “lack of purpose” in learning Chinese, the solution will look like singing karaoke as a class, comics festivals in schools, mandarin movie marathons, having a Mandarin joke session every other day, and other ways of having cultural conversations. These are meaningful purposes that will motivate kids to acquire the skills necessary to fulfill those them. 

If you have any questions or topics that you would like me to cover in the areas of education and parenting, please send me an email at I check all my emails personally and look forward to your questions. However, if you’re a student who’s trying to ask me to do your homework or project for you, I will most likely not have time to respond because I get way too many of those emails and it’s quite impossible to answer them all.

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